“Down with Hitler! Down with Hitler!”
Chants erupt, overpowering the crackle from the slowly rolling black and white news reel that announces, “German Operation HERKULES scrapped.”
Enlisted soldiers and officers alike crush against each other, elbow to elbow, on benches on the bottom floor of the teahouse to see Casablanca. But the deafening response to the news bulletin nearly cancels the showing. “Keep it down, boys, if you want to see more than your own dicks tonight,” the projection operator calls out.
In a melodious baritone, the broadcaster excitedly announces, “The Allies have just learned that Operation HERKULES has been terminated. Nearly one-hundred-thousand Axis troops were to storm Malta’s limited force of twenty-six-thousand men.” The movie shows a backdrop of grounded German DFS-230 assault gliders. “The plans included five-hundred German aircraft and two hundred Italian gliders supported by amphibious craft. The attack on Malta would have blocked the Allies on the North African front and given Rommel unlimited access to military supplies and oil. Fortunately, Rommel siphoned off too many men to support his attack on Egypt, leaving Malta a secondary target. This could be the biggest blunder of the war by Germany and Italy.”
“So even the Krauts are incapacitated by their own testosterone,” Charles remarks in his understated demeanor.
“That’ll teach those perfectionists that they’re not as smart as they think they are,” Bernie says and clinks beer bottles with Charles.
“You’re the experts,” I agree, taking a swig of beer while wondering where we would be if stupid luck hadn’t corrected the course set by our so-called intelligence specialists.
Bernie, wiggling his eyebrows in mock Marx Brothers style, says, “Gentlemen, I’ve had a perfectly lovely evening. But it was another night. Now, would you shut up? The movie’s starting.”
Instead, another snippet, this time on the CBI Theatre, squeezes in before Casablanca can begin. The room goes so quiet it would wake a baby.
“Out on the Orient Front, General Stilwell and his troops are pushing the Ledo Road closer to China.” The black and white tape shows a photo of Stilwell with his trademark cigarette holder in hand. “General Joseph W. Stilwell, the U.S. Army’s newest four-star general, is as regular and down-to-earth as the scuffed GI shoes he wears when tramping through the jungles. He’s no glamour-boy general. He’s a tough, frank old army man who hates Japs with an unwavering intensity.” The film switches to a photo of Stilwell and a young Punjab Indian. The broadcaster continues, “Dara Singh, a twenty-seven-year-old born in Malaya, is among Stilwell’s personal body guards. The young man worships Stilwell.”
In the news reel, Singh says, “Stilwell’s the grandest man I’ve known. I’d follow him to the end of the earth.”
With that, booing erupts, spreading from one side of the room to the other. By the thinnest of threads, those supporting Stilwell grab control of the grumbling before the undercurrent turns into an outbreak of soldiers slugging it out. To some, Stilwell’s the hero they need to convince themselves to charge forward. Others find the General prickly and fractious.
The movie reel slows, and the sound drawls into a low, unintelligible message until it stops. Silence takes control of the room once more, until the Warner Brother credits fill the screen.
Later in the night, we walk back to the barracks, discussing the movie in the freezing night air. “Rick was a gutsy guy,” I say of his contempt for the Germans. “‘I’m on their black- list…their roll of honor.’ But that French policeman, Renault, was a jerk.”
“Oh,” Charles raises an eyebrow. “He seemed to be the only one who knew it was a game: ‘I’m only a poor, corrupt official.’ Rick felt too sorry for himself to know when he was being played.” Charles’ tone suggests his superior intelligence meant he’d never be a Rick.
“Harry, your hero, Rick, wasn’t as clever as you think,” Bernie chimes in. “And he wasn’t exactly a great gambler, either—winning at roulette, but running guns for the wrong guys.” Bernie gives me a look, like, “Now, tell me that wasn’t stupid.”
“The winning side would have paid you much better,” Charles’s radio voice mimics Renault.
“Besides, Rick was a sucker.” Bernie elbows me to get a reaction. In a wimpy, mocking voice, he repeats a line from the movie: “You better hurry. You’ll miss that plane.” Then he gets serious. “What kind of a guy lets a drop-dead gorgeous woman use him like that?”
I agree with Bernie: beautiful women can make a fool out of a man. But my Ruthie never would. She may look like femme fatale, but she’s got substance in the right places. My mind goes back to the day we first met.
Bob’s round-roofed Studebaker with its shiny grill and chrome bumpers pulled up in front of the Cotillion box office. The Andrew Sisters harmonized Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy on a Victrola. A crowd, all ginned up in their finest threads, milled around outside the ballroom.
Under the yellow bulbs that circle the marquee featuring Tommy Dorsey, a sailor and army private tried to outdo each other, performing jitterbug twists and turns. Seeing the two hoofers, I straightened my double-breasted suit jacket, then hammed-it-up by belting out, “He’s the boogie woogie bugle boy from the Company B, toot toot toot.” My long arms imitated a trombone player, then I clapped my hands to the syncopated rhythm. God, I love to dance.
Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra started with Opus I. The maestro’s brass instrument reached for the sky while the piano player dragged his thumb down the pearly whites. I waited patiently—beer in hand, toes tapping, fingers snapping—but my feet itched to get out on the floor.
As I searched through the crowd, hoping to see someone old or luck upon somebody new, I watched a young lady at the front entrance as she attempted to push her way onto the dance floor. She tried to thread her way beyond two jokers, whose animated conversation blocked her.
First, she backed up, then advanced forward, like she had caught a swinging bar door at the right moment.
After the first song ended, I scanned the crowd for an old girlfriend. But my eyes were drawn back to the entrance where the petite, dark-eyed beauty smoothly pushed on to the parquet floor in her pink, well-fitted suit like she was parting the Red Sea. With a little sway in her hips, heads turned as she sashayed across the floor, heating up the room. And she knew it.
Now, that’s a woman who can hold her ground, I thought. But can she boogie? My eyes followed the black-haired Sheba to a table of girls along the dance floor. The only way to find out would be to ask. So I opened my suit jacket and casually made a move towards her table. I had previously discovered that if I think twice about talking to a girl, I back out, so I learned to act without thinking.
“Can I ask you to drink or offer you a dance?” I asked. From the girl’s bewildered look, I realized I had just tangled my ‘come-on’ into a double-bend fisherman’s knot. Pulling down on my suspenders so hard they almost snapped, I leaned back, then let out a hoot. “I really dance better than I talk. You won’t need your combat boots.”
One of the girls at the table nudged her out of her seat. “Go on, honey. You deserve a good time. And if we’re not here when the music stops, it means we were lucky, too.”
The black-eyed Sheba held back for a moment, then tentatively offered her hand as she quietly confided, “Don’t worry. I’m wearing steel-toed heels.”
And then I’m back to the present, trying to hold my own against Bernie and Charles, who gang up against me. I suggest, “War can change a man. Force him to do things you’d never expect. Like Rick running weapons and being a chump for the enemy. They were probably duds.”
“Who? The weapons or the enemy?” Charles jokes.
I listen to Charles and Bernie continue to one-up each other with movie quotes. But the thought of Rick trafficking ammunition nags at the back of my mind. I’m trying to find a likely explanation for the build-up of weapons instead of road equipment in our own supply hut, but the gossip line isn’t floating anything yet.
As we huddle against the cold and retrace our steps to the barracks, I shut out the sounds of the night and try to remember yesterday’s conversation with Schmidt. I feel like there’s something I’m missing.
“Somebody’s getting demoted for this,” Schmidt warned, jabbing a finger at me.
Other botched orders had come in since Operation LONGCLOTH, but I didn’t let on that I knew. This went against everything I’d been taught, but I secretly thought the mistaken swap of ammunition for supply parts brilliant—a way to support the boys flying the HUMP and delay Stilwell’s road at the same time. Now, it seems this was no oversight. Someone’s actually trying to fight this war rather than build around it.
He checked off the supply list, then flipped through the pages of receipts. We were the only ones in the supply room, and I had that ugly feeling of being contaminated by his presence. I wanted out.
“Shit happens,” I said, trying to protect some unidentified chump. “Besides, that road is killing more soldiers than the Japanese. Maybe this mistake is a life saver.”
Unfortunately, Schmidt’s one of those guys who has a radar for apprehension. He looked up from the paperwork, distrust in his eyes. “Are you suggesting someone may be altering the orders to shut down the road?”
My throat felt dry, and I’m sure my face radiated guilt, even though I’d done nothing wrong. But I knew, without admitting it, that there was something strange going on that was beyond my rank to solve. I turned towards the door, as though I hadn’t heard Schmidt, and left without answering.
A red blinking star in the sky pulls me back to talk of Casablanca. Up ahead, lighted by a dusting of the Milky Way, Reginald, Earl, and Lester stroll at a relaxed pace. They’re too deep in their own conversation to notice we’re closing in from behind. I put the troubling thoughts of Schmidt aside.
Hemmed in by looming barracks on both sides, Reginald starts to whistle, and Earl’s deep singing voice spreads up through the stark, night air. “You must remember this: a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.”
A voice calls out from one of the lightless barracks. “Shut up out there. Some of us gotta work tomorrow.”
Bernie gives the anonymous soldier a raised middle finger. It’s then that we notice the path is deserted and most of the kerosene lamps in camp are out.
Earl scowls, so I saddle up to him.
“You look like you’re itching to kick a cat. Something’s on your mind.” I say to him. He shakes his head as though nothing’s bothering him, then changes his mind, “Harry,
how can those boys back there at the movie criticize Stilwell, an officer who is trying to do good?” In Earl’s world, there is a right and a wrong, and he won’t ever burden anyone with his misgivings if there’s gray in his mind.
“I ain’t saying Stilwell is perfect,” he confides. “Hell, we all screw up now and again. The only ones who don’t slip up are the ones doing nothing at all. But who’s born a General? Lordy, he has too much on his mind to do everything right.”
“It’s a matter of him knowing what will win the war,” I say. And what will get us nowhere, I don’t say.
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